Talkin' 'bout Our Nation

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Have you got your kit yet? You don't want to start conversing without government guidance. And conversing about the topic the government has selected for us is, according to Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, something we all "have a responsibility" to do.

Mr. Hackney believes we need help if we are to converse properly about "American Pluralism and Identity," so his endowment has produced a kit of "materials -- conversation starters, book and film lists, documents, essays -- to help spark the individual conversations."


This may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle; there never has been a shortage of talk in America about that subject. It undoubtedly was a topic of conversation on the pitching decks of the Mayflower, and is, to put it mildly, not now neglected.

Furthermore, this designated topic of the Conversation, in the National Endowment for the Humanities' capacious notion of it, concerns just about everything. Readings included in the "suggested" kit runs from Aristotle to Maya Angelou. And the films -- well, for example, the list includes these items:


" 'Casablanca' -- This World War II classic explores American values in the multinational setting of war-torn Casablanca. Pertains to question 6." (Question 6 is "Where do we as Americans belong in the world?") ' "Meet Me in St. Louis' -- This musical depicts a family's experiences during the year of the St. Louis World's Fair. Pertains to question 5." (Question 5 is "What do we share as Americans?") " 'Shane' -- A former gunfighter comes to the defense of homesteaders and is idolized by their son. Pertains to question 5."

In the attempt to organize "thousands of small-group discussions around the country," no detail is too small. Advice includes:

"The meeting should not go longer than planned without the consent of all present. . . . The site should be convenient to get to and there should be sufficient parking. . . . Consider the size and the temperature (not too hot or too cold) of the room. . . . Chairs should be comfortable and placed so that participants are able to sit facing each other. . . . All participants will show respect for the views expressed by others. . . . Name-calling and shouting are not acceptable."

It is sweet and true to the spirit of democracy that our government, which thinks we need to be told not to have the room too hot or too cold, still thinks we can read Aristotle and converse about momentous matters. At least, if we are given meticulous instructions, particularly pertaining to sensitivity, about which the endowment is very sensitive:

"Consider having each session at a different location, allowing each racial, ethnic or cultural group to play host. . . . If your community has little racial or ethnic diversity, look for other kinds of diversity. You might find people of different ages, religions, political affiliations, socio-economic levels, professions, or neighborhoods. . . . You might need to help some participants overcome lingering feelings that they were invited solely because of their race, ethnic origin or cultural background." Yes, you might.

In the kit's booklet of scholars' essays there are many worth reading and one that should be read slowly and loudly to Mr. Hackney. James Q. Wilson of UCLA, noting that there actually may be less cultural diversity in America today than in the 1890s, writes:

"Most Americans have never doubted that there is or ought to be an underlying unity. The motto, E pluribus unum, though often violated in practice, has never been challenged in principle. Except by intellectuals. . . . If a 'national conversation' occurs, what will happen? The activists most likely to participate will be those most disaffected by America, and their conversation will provide further evidence to ordinary people that the great divide in this nation is not between rich and poor or between one race and another but between two cultures, the public and the elite. . . . The 'conversations' some want to foster are already happening; if they are to be made better, questions posed by a few dozen intellectuals acting with government encouragement will not help, especially when a large fraction of these folk occupy, or are seen by the common man or woman as occupying, an adversary posture vis-a-vis the common culture."

Still, there is currently a congressional conversation about the importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities relative to other recipients of scarce public resources, and the National Conversation kit is timely as evidence.


9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.